Allusions in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein | Allusions

Allusions in Frankenstein

Frankenstein is full of both analogies drawn between the characters and other figures from literature and myth, and allusions to various other texts: indeed, it could be said that, as the monster is constructed out of fragments of corpses, the text is constructed out of fragments of other texts. The major stories that Mary Shelley appropriates are reworks are the myth of Prometheus, Milton’s Paradise Lost and, to a lesser degree, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The Myth of Prometheus

The complete title Mary Shelley’s novel is Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. It invites us to make an analogy between Victor Frankenstein and the mythic Prometheus. There are two variations of the Prometheus myth. In Ovid, Prometheus is a creator who moulds the first human out of clay. In Aeschylus, he steals fire from the heavens and gives it to humans: he is subsequently punished by the Gods for his presumption with eternal torment; he is chained to Mount Cancasus, where an eagle preys on his liver all day that liver being renewed every night. These two myths gradually converged, and the fire became the vital principle with which Prometheus animated his clay images.

If we consider Victor as a reworking of this mythic Prometheus, the implication is that he is one of those admirable over reachers who refuse to accept limitations and are punished. He becomes the embodiment of an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a rebel against limitations set by the Gods, an admirable man who is punished for his daring. However, when we consider the actual characterization of Victor, problems immediately appear. First, we have to ask how admirable Victor really is: do we accept Walton’s assessment of him as the divine wanderer who possesses qualities which elevate him far above any normal man? Is he really driven by a desire to help mankind, or is he driven by a simple desire for personal glory? Thus, we also need to consider whether the main sin for which Victor is punished is the daring act of creation, or as it was with Prometheus, or if it is his failure to take responsibility for and nurture the creature he produces. Does his crime Tie in what he does, or in what he fails to do? We might also ask in what sense he is a “modern” Prometheus. One answer might be that Mary Shelley links the myth with current scientific theories, suggesting that the spark of life is not fire but electricity. Alternatively, he may be a “modern” Prometheus because this is such a secular world, there is no divine machinery here, no God against whom to rebel.

Another answer could be that Mary Shelley is providing an implicit criticism of Romanticism. Prometheus was a popular figure with the Romantic poets, who emphasized his role as the suffering champion of mankind, and saw in him the archetypal rebel hero. In Prometheus Unbound (1820), a reworking of Aeschylus’s tragedies, Percy Shelley presents him as “the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the earnest motives to the best and noble ends”. He also becomes, as Creator, the embodiment of the Romantic poet, the isolated heroic artist fearless in his quest to bring light to men, punished by the authority against whom he rebels, but still noble in his suffering. Contemporary critics consider that Mary Shelley’s modern Prometheus provides a criticism of the egocentric and antisocial tendencies of Romanticism, suggesting there is little hope for humanity in such self-absorption. In this reading, Mary Shelley is seen to push the Romantic figure of the isolated creative imagination to its extremes and clearly demonstrates the dancers associated with solitude and introversion.

Adam and Paradise Lost

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”


Mary Shelley chooses for her epigraph a quotation from Paradise Lost, one of the books in the monster’s library, and this, along with many other references to Milton’s epic throughout the novel, suggest that we need always to keep this story in mind when reading Frankenstein. The epigraph immediately encourages us to associate Victor with God and the monster with Adam. This seems appropriate since, as Creator, Victor assumes the role of God, and the ‘man’ he creates is the monster. If Victor is associated with God, how can he also be the Prometheus rebel against God? Further, while the monster certainly fits the role of Adam, he becomes also the demon, and assuming the role of Satan, the fallen archangel who engineers the fall of Adam and brings Sin and Death into the world. When the monster confronts Victor after the murder of William, he declares he has been changed by his exclusion from paradise:

“I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou divest from joy for no misdeed”.

The monster even echoes Satan’s words in Paradise Lost when he declares to Walton that, after his potential companion had been destroyed.

“Evil henceforth became any good”.

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An additional complication arises when we see the monster as Victor’s double. If the monster is satanic, Victor by association, can then be linked not only with Prometheus and with God, but also with Satan, the fallen angel. While the analogy drawn between the Monster and Satan focuses our attention on the creature’s horrific acts of savage violence, the analogy between Victor and Satan focuses our attention more on Victor’s pride and ambition. In attempting to displace God, he demonstrates the same pride as Satan, who had similar aspirations. Commenting upon his torment of guilt, Victor draws upon the following simile:

“Like archangel who aspired to omnipotence. I am chained in an eternal hell”.

Victor’s hell is within him, it is hell as a psychological state, but this is also true of the hell so powerfully described by Satan in Paradise Lost.

The analogy drawn between Victor and Satan is not necessarily entirely negative: Milton’s Satan is an interesting, even glamorous figure, nothing like the shadowy figure of the Bible. Percy Shelley even considered that Satan was morally superior to God in Milton’s poem, and many of the Romantic poets admired the grandeur and boldness of his aspirations. While Victor must be condemned for the neglect of his creature, it is possible that he too can still be admired for his bold aspirations, his refusal to be satisfied with a mundane and uneventful existence with his family, and his attempt to give mankind a power thought to belong to God alone. To come to that conclusion, however, perhaps we need to be convinced that his work is driven by the desire to benefit others, and not by more selfish motives.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Coleridge’s poem was published in Lyrical Ballads (1798). The story concerns an ancient mariner who meets three men on their way to a wedding feast; he detains one and, with his “glittering eye”, holds him while he recounts his story. He tells how his ship was drawn towards the South Pole by a storm and the ship became surrounded by ice.

In this world devoid of living things an albatross flies through the fog and the crew greets it with joy. It seems to be a good omen. The ice splits, the ship begins to move, and the bird flies along with it. Inexplicably, the mariner shoots it, and for this act of cruelty a curse descends upon the ship. She is driven towards the Equator and becalmed on a rotting sea under the burning sun. The dead bird is hung around the neck of the mariner Death and life-in-Death appear, playing dice on a skeleton ship. When it vanishes all the crew die with the exception of the mariner, he is left alone in an alien world. Moved by the beauty of water snakes in the moonlight, the mariner blesses them, and the albatross falls from his neck. He is saved, but in penance, condemned to travel the world teaching love and reverence for all God’s creatures.

The most obvious connection with the story of the ancient mariner is Walton’s journey into the frozen wastes of the Arctic: Walton even quotes the poem when the ship is trapped in the ice. However, the mariner’s story actually seems to throw more light upon the experience of the other characters. Like Victor, the Ancient Mariner defies God. In shooting the albatross he disturbs the natural order and his world, like Victor’s is transferred into a nightmare vision of an alien universe, a meaningless and terrifying wasteland, a world without God. Even after the mariner is forgiven, we are left with the suspicion that this vision of the world may have been prompted by the mariner’s insight into the truth of the human condition. The monster’s experiences may offer a similar insight into a godless world, an irrational, terrifying world managed only by human institutions which are corrupt and individuals who are irresponsible and cruel. Further, like both Victor and monster, the mariner is an alienated individual. Once he shoots the albatross, he is no longer at peace with himself, and he is shunned by the wider community. Even after he is forgiven, although he becomes aware of the joys of family and community life, he is forced to do penance which keeps him still a solitary, marginal figure, eternally wandering the world. The poem offers a haunting portrayal of the guilt and loneliness that Mary Shelley also captures through the experiences of her characters.

Cornelius Agrippa

Victor Frankenstein was inspired by this author to bring life to lifeless matter however, his professor M. Krempe discouraged him from such ideas.

“In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa…the theory which he attempts to demonstrate, and the wonderful facts he relates, soon changes this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind (21)”.

Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus

Other alchemist that inspired Victor Frankenstein. Though discouraged from these ideas by M. Krempe his other professor M. Waldman believed that these scientist were important to the foundation of other sciences.

“These were the men to whose indefatigable zeal philosophers were indebted for most of the foundation of their knowledge” (33).

The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy by Dante is mentioned in the novel when the creature is first brought to life. Frankenstein describes his creation: ‘I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.’ You are probably assuming that Dante has seen some pretty ugly creatures, and you would be correct. Dante takes a journey through the nine circles of hell and describes the grotesque creatures that he encounters. Not only does this allusion illustrate just how hideous Frankenstein’s creature is.

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